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Karan Saxena

Did Canada turn its back on India’s worst public health crisis?

By:
Karan Saxena (@karsaxenaaa)

It is no surprise that the Hindu nationalist BJP government—inept at anything but corporate welfare—has failed to curb the worst public health crisis in Indian history. 

Modi has boldly claimed “victory” over COVID-19, by easing restrictions, privatizing vaccines, holding massive rallies for political gain, and making billion dollar renovations for his parliamentary residence—all as the country continues to run out of hospital beds, oxygen, and firewood for funeral pyres.

For him and his supporters, including those who showed up in millions to Kumbh Mela (a Hindu festival) and made it a superspreader event, the pandemic is virtually over.

The same cannot be said for those in the parking lots of hospitals, crying, screaming, and begging healthcare workers to triage and treat their loved ones as they take their last breaths. 

When a government fails to protect its citizens, who should the people turn to? 

You would think that grim images of burning bodies in parking lots would be enough to amass some global aid. 

And you would be sorely let down.

The Indian government has certainly demonstrated how they do not care about Indian citizens, and in a disappointed-but-not-surprised fashion, other governments have followed suit. 

Canada’s “aid” to India

Indo-Canadian relations have not always been easy to navigate. 

Earlier this year, Canada’s rightful support for protests against anti-farmer laws in India led to some international tensions. Things eased up when Trudeau decided to commend the BJP on their “path of dialogue benefitting democracy” with respect to the protests, even though farmers continued to push back against state-sanctioned violence.

Soon after this new stance came the flood of 2 million AstraZeneca (AZ)/CoviShield vaccines manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, one of the two primary vaccines in use in India.

Many Canadians wanted to wait for the superior mRNA vaccines after rare cases of blood clots linked with AZ shots (which Indians could have used instead had the BJP not shipped them out), contributing to vaccine hesitancy in the country.

After weeks of encouraging the AZ vaccine, the National Advisory Committee of Immunization (NACI) said that they recommend the mRNA vaccines over the AZ and Johnson and Johnson vaccines, causing much chaos on social media. AZ-vaccinated individuals even expressed their vaccine remorse.   

Importing vaccines from India greatly confused the general public, causing wastage of vaccine doses all as both nations see devastating second and third waves of infections. 

Given that the country ordered vaccines from India, Canada could have entered a united partnership to remove as many strenuous processes around vaccine production and distribution as possible. 

But all it did to show “support” was sending medical supplies including 50 ventilators and 25,000 vials of remdesivir.

Waiving vaccine patents could have benefitted Canada too. Yet, the stance on Big Pharma’s intellectual property remains unwaivered.

What about patents?

The population of the global south cannot receive certain vaccines because of wealth inequality, nor can they produce them because of intellectual patents that “incentivize innovation.” 

Outside of a dystopian sci-fi novel, this should not be a factual statement. Yet, here we are. 

The basic premise of Intellectual Property (IP) rights is rooted in the idea that pharma companies having exclusive rights to their products will lead to more investments in life-saving medicines. They allege that to take away those rights would be punishing them.

Patents are not the main issue here, production and distribution are, so they say IP rights must be protected. Or at least that is what the richest IT guy in the world, Bill Gates, says against IP waivers

To a certain extent, he is right. Patent waivers won’t solve global vaccine disparity. Even if this one waiver does not set a precedent for future pandemics, there are questions about whether or not pharma companies will invest in crucial medical research again.

For Bill Gates and other IP defenders, interrogating the current funding model for medical research at the hands of private donors, or advocating for more state-owned and publicly-funded research are not options, evidently. 

We should all bury the fact that Moderna’s vaccine research was primarily funded by taxpayers, medical centres, and Dolly Parton. We should also quietly ignore Pfizer’s $3.5 billion in profits in the first quarter, and keep this one barrier that will likely contribute to the pandemic becoming a perennial epidemic.

For a country that lost all national production power decades ago and has relied on India for vaccines, Canada un-intuitively opted for this route.

When India and South Africa first put forth the motion to abandon patents, many of the rich countries, including the U.S., U.K., EU, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Australia, Brazil, and Canada, voted against the waivers.

The Canadian government has been criticized greatly for helping corporations over individual citizens and residents throughout the past year. But this hypocritical decision unfortunately seems characteristic. 

With added barriers to vaccine production and distribution, not only the global south, but also Canadian residents will bear the brunt of this decision.

Current global response

Old habits die hard, and this rings true for the American exceptionalism and imperialistic habits of the U.S. 

Not only did they initially oppose IP waivers, but they also placed a ban on exporting raw materials to India for a vaccine developed with Indian-American partnership.

Maybe the Biden administration aims to cause a smidge less harm than the one preceding it, but the U.S. finally decided to support the waivers to make vaccines accessible by a step. 

Following this, the EU supported discussions around waiving patents, albeit reluctantly—when leaders like Angela Merkel lamented over “allowing” India to become the pharmacy of the world amidst slashed vaccine shipments—even though the waivers could selfishly benefit the EU.

And what did Canada do? Nothing.

Trudeau said that they “look forward to moving forward on a consensus basis”, which indicates that a change of stance is possible.

Until this stance changes, we can expect India to continue to run out of oxygen, antiviral drugs, hospital beds, and crematorium spaces.

What’s next?

While Big Pharma and their home countries continue to protest against IP waivers with some valid arguments, their claims don’t add up all that much, and waiving patents at this point could remove one key hurdle in vaccinating the whole world, and saving lives. 

Some have even argued that Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson can still make money off of this devastating public health crisis if governments paid to absorb their vaccine technology into the public domain, offering a sustainable model of ending the pandemic.

The Canadian government can say that “Canada continues to stand in solidarity with the people of India,” but it is nothing more than performative aid. 

Sending ventilators and PPE at this point is merely a drop in the bucket, and wasting every single minute deciding how to please both the global south and pharma companies is going to kill more people than accomplish anything.

In true Canadian pandemic fashion, we can only wait to see what real solidarity looks like once things get worse, and so that the Canadian government tries not to upset anyone. 

Until then, we can only continue to mobilize en masse and make donations through mutual aid and crowdfunding, because every single government has pathetically failed Indians.

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Karan Saxena (he/they) is a journalist and writer from Mumbai, India. He is currently in Vancouver pursuing his Master of Journalism at UBC. He graduated from the University of Manitoba with a BA (Adv.) in Political Studies and a BA in Women's & Gender Studies. Karan loves researching and writing on queer culture, climate change, immigration, power structures, fascism and violence. He could talk for hours about fashion, French pop music, the ongoing exploitation of the global south, wealth inequality, and the versatility of tote bags!

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